Them Fightin’ Words – Dan Teefey
Sermon text: Matthew 18:15-22
So this week has been an interesting week. I believe that God changes us. And when I say that - I don't just mean that one day we are doing drugs, drinking beer by the gallons, lying, cheating, stealing, worshiping movie stars, our wallets . . . and everything else . . . and then we accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior . . . and bam, life is perfect. We stop all of that and now sit in our houses for hours reading the Bible, praying and sipping decaffeinated coffee.
No, when I say that I believe that God changes us . . . I mean that God never stops changing us. I really mean this. You should know what God is working on inside of you right now. No one is there. We don't figure it all out at some point. I don't care if you are at the beginning of your spiritual journey or the end . . . God is still trying to change you. To mold you more and more into who he created you to be.
This week God has been working on me. I know what my sermon topics are going to be ahead of time. We generally plan them out weeks, if not months before they happen. So I have known for several weeks that this Sunday we were going to discuss conflict resolution, forgiveness and Matthew 18. And to be honest, I felt pretty good about doing that.
I have generally done very well with conflict resolution. I actually really enjoy it. I didn't formally specialize in anything in particular in law school, but if there was one area that I really pursued and enjoyed was alternative dispute resolution. This includes arbitration and mediation. Arbitration is similar to going before a judge but generally happens outside of the traditional court process. Mediation is different, and what I especially enjoyed. Basically a mediator helps two opposing parties come to their own agreement. Instead of having a judge decide something for the parties, the mediator helps the two parties reach a win-win solution or a compromise.
My best experience was mediating child visitation agreements between non-married parents. Basically a judge would ask the parents if they were willing to try to work out an agreement on their own. If they agreed, they came to me and I tried to get them to compromise on a solution. I really enjoyed it and seemed descent at it.
And at various other places in my life thus far I have been able to help people deal with conflict. That was one of my primary tasks at the church I served in Chicago before I came here. There were some serious issues that had arisen and I got to help the leadership and the church to begin to work through them.
So, I generally thing that conflict resolution is one of my gift so I was excited about this topic when I chose it to discuss. The sermon suggestions just said things like, “conflict resolution,” “forgiveness,” and “how to get along with others.”
Well, as the week began I discovered God teaching me a lesson. I sometimes confuse conflict resolution with conflict avoidance. In an effort to avoid a conflict, I actually escalated one. And I violated several of the principles that I think are clear in Matthew 18. I apologized more than once and hope that there is no lasting damage, but it stinks that God does this to us. But it is still good. Just when I thought I had something figured out . . . God starts pruning.
So the week started this way . . . and I am a worrier . . . so all week I am anxious about what I am going to say . . . how I can convey God's Word, but also to wrestle with what it is doing in me. And I usually have everything pretty ironed out, at least in my mind, by Thursday or so. Not so this time. I was just having a hard time. So over this past weekend I tried to let go of it and let God just push me in different directions. Actually at one point, I thought about just switching the topic. Well . . . eventually things starting making sense. And I got most of the sermon down in my mind and on paper.
But here is the crazy part. I have still felt anxious about it this weekend and especially last night. After the Family Show yesterday afternoon, Dana and I, and the girls went shopping to pick up the things to put in our Operation Christmas Child boxes. At one point we split the list and I went one way and she went the other. As I was walking down the aisle thinking about my sermon, I heard someone come up behind me and say, “excuse me.” It was two kids that were either in late elementary school or junior high. The one kid said, “can we talk to you?” “Sure.” He said, “we are doing a treasure hunt . . . and I am looking for someone wearing brown shoes, blue jeans, a green shirt and a hat.” I had all of those on. And then the kid continued, “you are the treasure that I was looking for. Actually I am a part of a youth group and we were praying tonight that God would lead us to people that needed prayer. He told me I needed to find someone with brown shoes, blue jeans, a green shirt, and a hat. Do you need prayer?” I thought to myself, now God really? This is weird. And right there in the middle of the store, this kid prayed that my words today would be God's words and that whatever anxiousness that I felt would pass away.
God changes us. Not just when we are saved . . . but every single day of our lives . . .
So what is it that God wants us to learn from Matthew 18?
We have to begin by understanding that this text deals with situations where we see others sinning. What it does not deal with, but what I want to mention as we begin, is how we receive others’ concern that we are sinning. No one enjoys being told they did something wrong. It drives me crazy. I hate when Dana points out that I put the girls in hideous outfits . . . and hate it even more when she points out sin in my life. It hurts . . . but we must receive it knowing that it sharpens us. When someone that we trust and that we know has a good relationship with God comes to us and says that there is something in our life that needs changing . . . we should listen, because they are likely the voice of God in our lives at that time. God is using them to sharpen us no matter how tough it might be and how defensive we might want to become.
That said, much of the conflict that arises in our lives stems from situations where others have done things that hurt us. Perhaps they have physically abused us, or gossiped about us, or are just doing things in their lives that they should not be. Perhaps they are cheating on their spouse, or drinking much more than they should, maybe they are being prideful . . . whatever, when we witness their sin and we have that sinking feeling not knowing exactly what we ought to do, Matthew 18 provides us with a very practical set of steps.
Now this section is Jesus' words that seem to be spoken to believers, to his followers, about how to deal with other followers, but the principles seem to apply to our dealing with non-believers as well. The principles are really universal for healthy human communication.
Here is the first point that I think is important for us to understand about biblical conflict resolution. Biblical conflict resolution is never solely punitive. The goal of biblical conflict resolution is always restoration.
It is no accident that immediately before our passage on conflict resolution is the parable of the lost sheep. Jesus tells the story of a man who owns 100 sheep and one gets away. He says that once the man finds that one sheep he is happier about it than about the 99 that did not wander off. And then Jesus says that it is this way with God. He does not want any one lost.
The goal of conflict resolution . . . the goal of confronting someone about sin is always their rescue and forgiveness. Handling those that have wronged us biblically always means that we desire what is best for them.
This is extraordinarily difficult at times. This does not come naturally to us. If someone does wrong to us, we don't want their best, we generally want something bad to happen to them. But Jesus teaches something different and then lives something entirely different too. I have always been fascinated that Jesus knows that Judas is his betrayer and yet still sits and eats with him at the last supper and then gets down on his knees and washes his feet. Think of someone that you are having a hard time forgiving and then think about getting down on your knees and washing their feet . . . submitting yourself to serve them. And Jesus lives out his teaching again on the cross. He has just been crucified by those that hate him and he cries out for them to be forgiven . . . that is our standard.
We are to approach any conflict situation with humility and desire for all parties to find wholeness through God.
Our first lesson is that all efforts at conflict resolution are aimed at restoration. The goal is not to accuse, prove guilt, or to punish, but to set the brother or sister back on the right track of healing and wholeness.
Here is the process lined up in Matthew 18. We begin with, “if your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you.” We generally learn about someone doing something wrong in one of two ways: either we witness it or we hear about it from someone else. Either way, no matter how we learn about the sin, we are told to go to that brother or sister in person to talk about the fault or sin. Any word which we hear about another person's sin is not to be passed on to others, until each of us has followed the steps of personal confrontation, to see if repentance can occur on a one-to-one basis.
This is where things generally go wrong. This very first step. It is often hard for us to confront each other. It is much easier to call up a close friend or someone else and tell them that so and so did such and such. And then we love to hear them respond about how bad that is . . . and the gossip will go on and on without anyone confronting the person that started it all. And before you know it we have committed far more sinful behavior by talking and talking, then the person originally did.
Remember our goal is restoration of the sinner. Talking to other people does nothing to restore the sinner. We must talk to them personally. And the text says rightly that if the sinner listens and repents . . . then conflict resolved. It is done.
Only after we have confronted the sinner personally are we told to include other people. Verse 16 says that “if he will not listen, take one or two others along.” If the issue cannot be resolved on a one-to-one basis, then we are to invite one or two other persons to come with us to talk to them. It is important that we choose these people wisely. The goal is not to prove the other person's guilt. The goal is to help that person to see how their behavior or words were offensive, and to repent - to opt for a different pattern of behavior. It makes the most sense to choose someone that is close to the sinner to go with you a second time. You want to take someone that the sinner respects and trusts, someone that will be fair, that can give a broader perspective and understand the situation, as well as who would show sympathy and loving concern for the one who has sinned.
Only after the sinner has rejected both of these genuine efforts for repentance, does the wider body of believers ever need to know about it. And if this happens, again the primary goal is to lead them into repentance. Verse 17 says, “if he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refused to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” They are to be excluded from the church. The purpose of the action or setting the person outside of the church, is to bring to attention with full force the seriousness of the sin, and bring the sinner to repentance and salvation. The person will be treated as an unbeliever, a person to be evangelized, and brought (back) into the fellowship of the church, if and whenever that may become possible.
This model is one of loving confrontation. The goal must be loving concern for reconciliation of those who are lost and who have gone astray. Consistent and loving discipline may become the instrument of salvation for those outside of the church . . . and is absolutely the method for continuing personal sanctification within the church.
These practical steps lead into the deep and difficult waters of forgiveness. Let's say that we have confronted someone that is in error or that has sinned against us or someone else . . . and maybe they have even apologized and repented. How do we forgive them? Or maybe we can't even get to a point where we could confront someone because we are so angry that we could not speak to them without sinning ourselves. How do we give up this anger, this hurt and forgive?
Forgiveness is generally understood as letting go of resentment, indignation or anger. It is not just a biblical concept either. The Mayo Clinic's website says this about forgiveness, which summarizes the biblical position but doesn’t cite the Bible. “Generally, forgiveness is a decision to let go of resentment and thoughts of revenge. The act that hurt or offended you may always remain a part of your life, but forgiveness can lessen its grip on you and help you focus on other, positive parts of your life. Forgiveness can even lead to feelings of understanding, empathy and compassion for the one who hurt you. Forgiveness doesn't mean that you deny the other person's responsibility for hurting you, and it doesn't minimize or justify the wrong. You can forgive the person without excusing the act. Forgiveness brings a kind of peace that helps you go on with life.”
In Matthew 18, Peter asks the question that we would have asked after Jesus explains how to confront someone that has sinned against us. Peter wonders, but what about that guy that repents every time we confront him . . . what do we do if every time someone sins and we confront them and they repent . . . do we just keep on forgiving them? That seems like we are letting them off. What about three strikes and you are out? And Jesus says, keep on forgiving them. “Not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” That is Jesus' way of saying - every time we forgive them no matter how many times it happens.
It is important for us to notice though, that forgiveness should accompany a discussion of how concretely to deal with harm done. Forgiveness does not imply that there does not need to be any repentance or accountability by the offender. Remember that this section about forgiveness comes immediately after our section on how to confront someone that has caused harm. Unlimited forgiveness is the lesson, but that forgiveness is not disassociated from the concrete realities of dealing with harm done within the community.
We can forgive someone and still expect them to be punished. What changes in forgiveness . . . is that the punishment is not retribution . . . it is not because we want them to feel the pain we felt . . . it is because we sincerely hope that it will lead to their redemption . . . to their restoration and repentance. Our heart changes in forgiveness.
The depth of one's forgiveness can be measured by the degree to which it is aimed at blessing the offender rather than securing revenge. The desire to restore the offender is of the Spirit. The desire to “get back” at someone is not godly.
To forgive we must reflect on the facts of the situation, how we've reacted, and how this combination has affected our life, health and well-being. When you're ready, actively choose to forgive the person who's offended you. Move away from your role as victim and release the control and power the offending person and situation have had in your life. As you let go of grudges, you'll no longer define your life by how you've been hurt. You may even find compassion and understanding.
Forgiveness requires us to go deep into the emotions of hurt and pain that we feel. We must seek to understand our feelings. It is often easier to feel bitter and angry than it is to admit that we are in bondage to someone that has hurt us. It is painful to admit that the offender continues to control us. C.S. Lewis said, “everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have someone to forgive.”
Get the right perspective on what is happening. Recognize that your primary distress is coming from the hurt feelings, thoughts and physical upset you are suffering now, not what offended you or hurt you two minutes - or ten years -ago. Forgiveness helps to heal those hurt feelings.
Forgiveness is most difficult when the offender does not admit they did anything wrong or does not show any remorse or sense they did anything wrong. It will help to pray. It can also help to speak to a close friend, to write your thoughts down in a journal, or to speak to a counselor. It may also be helpful to spend time reflecting on the times that you have been forgiven. Remember that forgiveness does not say that what the offender did was o.k. or that their actions don't have consequences, it simply releases you from the bitterness, hostility, resentment, and vengeance.
Forgiveness is possible even when reconciliation is not. Forgiveness is not about getting the other person to change, but about getting you free of your emotional bondage to them. Forgiveness takes away the power that the offender wields in your life.
Over time you will be able to amend your story of pain and hurt, so that it is a story of the heroic choice you made to forgive. Forgiveness is simply choosing to love. Forgiveness is not highly rated in our culture. Definitely not as high as revenge or spite. Forgiveness does not come naturally to us, but it is God’s way.
God is tugging at many of your hearts this morning. Maybe you know you have a conflict with someone. They have done things that you know are wrong and you have not had the confidence to speak to them personally about it. God wants you to help to restore their brokenness.
Or maybe your heart is swelling with feelings of anger, resentment, and revenge this morning . . . God wants all that. He wants you to let it go this morning. He wants you to forgive the person you are in bondage to. Let it go. You don’t have to say what they did was right . . . but you have to say you are free from it. Your God is bigger than their faults . . . and you choose to love.
Crabb, Larry. Understanding People: Deep Longings for Relationship. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan
Horning, Estella B. “The Rule of Christ.” Brethren Life and Thought, vol. XXXVIII (Spring 1993).
Ramshaw, Elaine J. “Power and Forgiveness in Matthew 18.” Word and World, vol. XVIII, no. 4 (Fall